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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: An Intricate Carton-Printing Design

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

The purpose of a box is to “contain.” Boxes, or cartons, keep together all component parts of whatever you’re shipping. They also sell your brand. To do this, they have to look good.

In this light, my fiancee found a corrugated box this week for Spoonful of Comfort. It is simply designed, with text and (what looks like) a woodcut image of a rooster bleeding off the bottom on two sides plus the branding (the name of the company in a box-rule overlaying the rooster images). On one panel is a text-only logo (Spoonful of Comfort) taking up a space about 3” x 5” wide.

All of this is printed in black ink only, directly on the brown kraft paper of the corrugated board. On the final exterior panel is a notation that the contents were packed with care and that someone is thinking of you. This feels very laid back and personal, probably because of the old-time look of the box (the woodcut rooster) and the very readable type.

Ironically, even though there is a flourish (a floral squiggly rule line) on either side of the “of” in the logo, the type still looks somewhat modern. The text is letterspaced (spread out slightly) in three different modern or contemporary typefaces, but they look old because of the black-only treatment, the flourish, and one small raised letter. (The second “o” in “Comfort” in the logo is small and slightly raised, with a graphic mark under the “o,” although it still aligns with the top of the other capital letters.)

So the long and short of this is that by combining the look of the Old West (the rooster and the capitalized, almost “chiseled” letters) with some modern treatments, the logo and the box in general look timeless (old and new simultaneously), comfortable, and personal.

That’s no mean feat with black type only on unbleached, fluted kraft board.

But the piece de resistance is the interior. The interior supports the “unboxing experience.” This is the excitement you feel when the carton arrives on your doorstep (and you pick it up before the porch pirates get it) and you open the carton in the comfort of your own home. You have an experience not unlike opening gifts on Christmas morning (or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and so forth). In our hearts we’re all still children.

The inside of this box is orange, with white knock-out geometric forms (mostly interlocking circles, with a white flower in every other chained circle). It reminds me of a chain-link fence the way everything connects.

In contrast to the black-only imagery on the exterior of the carton, the orange of the interior provides the “Wow” factor. Of course, this is heightened by the copy block on one panel mentioning the care that went into the package. It’s effective marketing, but it’s also quite attractive. I was interested, even though I knew the box was empty.

Printing Technology Options

Being a commercial printing nerd, I wanted to know what technology was used to print the boxes. So I started with the usual suspects:

Is It Offset Printing?

No. First of all, since an offset press would crush the “fluting” (the wavy interior paper that looks like back and forth “S”s), the only way to successfully print on the exterior of a carton via offset lithography would be to print a coated or uncoated press sheet and laminate it to the outside of the fluting. This would create a (usually full-color) image on the outside of the box. I’ve seen this done often on cartons containing liquor bottles. Then again, I’ve also seen coated 4-color printed litho paper laminated to cartons containing electronic devices from “big-box” stores.

Is It Flexography?

Flexography involves using rubber (relief) commercial printing plates to image flat corrugated cartons, usually in one color (often black). Unlike offset litho, this does not involve heavy pressure, so the process will not crush the fluting (the purpose of which is to make the cardboard cartons both light in weight and durable).

When my fiancee and I used to assemble “standees” at movie theaters, the back panels of a lot of the standees had been printed via flexography. I knew because the chalky black ink came off on my hands. Also, the graphics were simple, usually just a flood of black ink covering all surfaces not visible to the theater patrons.

Also, at least back in the 1990s when I was getting labels printed via flexography, the letterforms weren’t as precise as offset-printed text. They had “halos,” a slightly thicker or darker stroke visible around the edges of the letterforms. I know flexography has improved a lot in the past 30-something years, but this was a distinguishing characteristic (at least when the job was printed on matte litho paper).

In the case of this particular carton, I would say that maybe it was printed via flexography, although through a 12-power printer’s loupe the ink looks a little more substantial than the water-based flexography ink I am used to. Perhaps it’s custom screen printing ink (i.e., for serigraphy, a.k.a. silkscreen).

Is It Screen Printing?

Custom screen printing involves forcing thick ink through a fabric or wire screen onto a substrate. It’s good for printing boxes and printing garments like golf caps or items like messenger bags. It does, however, take a lot to set up a press run, so custom screen printing is really only useful for longer runs—like this cardboard box, perhaps. And since the orange color inside is a match color (rather than a build of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), this would lend credence to my educated guess regarding the commercial printing method.

Is It Digital (i.e., Inkjet) Printing?

Inkjet print heads don’t touch the substrate (ink is jetted onto the substrate through nozzles on the inkjet press), so this option for printing on corrugated cardboard definitely would not crush the fluting. That said, it is a slow imaging process compared to custom screen printing and flexography (once preparation or makeready for screen printing and flexo has been completed). So for a longer press run of cartons (in this case without any variable data such as names), digital inkjet would probably not be cost effective.

In addition, if you look very closely, a sample of inkjet printing is composed of a huge number of almost microscopic dots. To my eyes the ink layer on the cardboard carton seems more even-toned than a layer of inkjet ink.

What’s My Guess?

For a very short press run I would say the technology of choice would have been inkjet. For a long run I would say that, since the design is simple with no registration of colors, this may have been printed via flexography. (Also, flexo may be more forgiving on corrugated stock than on matte litho label paper. If so, this might account for the absence of halos on the perimeter of the letterforms in the typography on the box.)

That said, since the unbleached kraft paper that comprises the carton is porous, I would imagine that a water-based commercial printing ink (such as flexographic ink) might seep into the paper substrate more and not appear to be as thick and rich, particularly the orange ink inside the carton. (That is, I’d expect ink that sits up on the surface of a porous cardboard box—like the box I speak of–to more likely be custom screen printing ink than flexographic ink.)

The Takeaway

In your own design work and print buying work, you may want to take this kind of approach to a design and print job. It’s a good habit, since it will make you articulate your goals and address what technology fits these goals best. Think about the length of the press run, the number of colors, the quality of the substrate (whether you want it to be more or less porous).

Consider whether you want to print a detailed, 4-color design or whether black (or a different single color, or two) type and imagery without close register of ink colors would be sufficient.

Do you need to personalize the boxes (by adding people’s names), or is your box part of a versioned run (with so many boxes for each separate segment of an overall promotional initiative)?

Answers to all of these questions and others will help you determine which method of custom printing to choose.

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